Friday, December 1, 2017


Be prepared for vehement disagreement with what follows, but mind that I am not proposing it as a binding universal truth, only as my own certainly arguable private views. What I am asserting, skewed or not, is a sense of the beauty or lack thereof of certain languages, with a considerable middle ground between extremes that I would call the in-betweens.

I am thinking of so-called Western. i.e., European and American languages, for no better reason than acquaintance with them, thus excluding Asian and African languages about which I know nothing. So let me designate Italian, French, and educated British as beautiful, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, Yiddish and Swiss German as unattractive, positing the presence or absence of melody in them as the determining factor.

So lets start with Italian as spoken in Italy, not Brooklyn. Not for nothing are there Italian composers, musicians, opera lovers in superabundance. Clearly a two-way relationship between music and language exists, whichever you consider the chicken and which the egg. I am asking you not to be swayed by dialects or the speech of the uneducated, whom I don’t consider inferior morally or mentally, only wanting aesthetically. But independently from what they mean, I aurally prefer “fa in culo” to “fangul.” Note that I am not thinking Dante, except where it may coincide with the speech of ordinary middle-class people as apprehended by an unprejudiced ear.

To be sure, there may be disagreement as to what is melody, or at least speech melody, but not so much about what is pleasurable. Consider the well-known story, true albeit attributed to different protagonists, whereby a foreigner being transported by truck to a concentration camp, recited some of ‘The Divine Comedy” in such exquisite Italian as to be released by his enchanted Fascist captors.

The basic musicality of a language depends on its presence in everyday speech, much as the melodiousness affects someone listening to music  (please, no rap or hip-hop) and being spellbound by Verdi or Puccini even if unable to read music or recognize a sung high C. This presumes neutrality in the listener and absence of any particular agenda from his or her upbringing in a family awash in music of a particular kind. But to anyone hearing, say, the last line of ‘The Divine Comedy, “ which runs “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle,” and is not that different from everyday educated Italian, melody ought to be apparent.

It has to do with the large number of vowels of every kind, and also with the frequency of flowing disyllables, whereas in the English translation, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars,” you get heavily accented monosyllables comparable at best to a drumbeat. Even “vietato fumare, “ for “no smoking,” is more melodious, to say nothing of “ti voglio bene,” for “I love you.” And so on, for even the music of ordinary conversational prose.

Now for no lesser melodiousness, though of a different kind, in French. There is a sort of fascinating singsong built into the language that all educated, and even many uneducated, speakers somehow spontaneously fall into. Some of it has to do with nasalization of the an, on. un, in, en variety; some of it with all those endings in mute e’s; some of it with diphthongs in oi or ie, e.g., moi or oie (goose), and hier or pied. Note the diverse e’s, as in ete (I can’t do accents), a kind of soprano, mezzo as in geste, and contralto, as in etre--the latter two with also the mute e ending. But even the mute e is often not really mute, as it follows the preceding consonant in, say, je.

Take a sentence like “Moi, j’ai toujours ete tres fier et meme entete,” and you have a whole gallery of various e’s making music. Then the pretty eu sound as doubled in
 heureux or as diphthong in lieu; and the echoing ou of toujours. Further, the high u, in words like nue, or diphtongized as in pluie. Again, the rhyming repetition of nasals in enfant or the progressively lightening sequence o, i, i in colibri. And bear in mind that such effects come at you full throat in clusters, not just in fortuitously fortunate isolation. Or consider the sequence of vowels in the title of a ballet by Jacques Ibert: “Les Amours de Jupiter,” with even a rhyme on Ibert-Jupiter.

All this does have a lot to do with who is speaking, because the most beautiful languages benefit from a well-spoken exponent. This is where France has produced some exquisite speakers, either from the Academie Francaise, or from the theater (somewhat fewer from the cinema). Gerard Philipe comes to mind, and Louis Jouvet, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Desailly-- even in his exaggerated way, Sacha Guitry. Also Marcel Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Dux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Marais. I remember the fabulous Iago at the Comedie of Aime Clariond, prematurely deceased like Philipe.. And then the women: Edwige Feuillere.  Maria Casares. Micheline Presle, Renee Faure, Arletty. Berthe Bovy, Germaine Dervoz, Gabriele Dorziat, Valentine Tessier. Danielle Darrieux. and perhaps also Marie Bell and Gaby Morlay. Even merely reciting their names proves melodious.

But melodious too are even the most commonplace utterances casually uttered, take “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” This with the sequence of three ous, interlarded by the three e’s, albeit one differently voiced in “avec.” Or compare the prosaic English “Pull he handle only in case of danger” with “Tirer la manivelle seulement en cas de danger,” where I leave it to you to parse the sundry beauties.

All of which brings me to my third melodiousness, well-spoken British English. I recall, quoted from memory, Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “America and Britain, two countries separated by the same language.” Let’s face it: American English has no discernible melody, whereas upper-class or theatrical British English very much does. Just listen to a recording featuring such actors as, for instance, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave. Or women, such as Judi Dench, Celia Johnson, Edith Evans. Sybil.Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Joan Greenwood, Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Bown.
And still others I can’t think of at the moment.
The extreme form of the British accent, a sort of flute melody rollercoasting up and down,the scales is that of Oxford dons sand some students, called Oxonian. It was most imperiously (or imperially) exhibited by Professor Garrod, and required utmost concentration to comprehend. (Isaiah Berlin also had it.)  I experienced it in a milder form from Professor (later Sir) Maurice Bowra, when he was guest lecturer at Harvard.

He seemed to like me, because he chatted with me in his office. I recall his having experienced Kenneth Burke, and not having understood him (although that may have been less a matter of an American accent than of certain weird neologisms invented by Burke), asked me to provide interpretations. I mostly couldn’t. This is a good, though perhaps extreme, example of how some accents may become problematic.

We come now to what I call the in-between languages, not quite ugly but not quite beautiful. There is, for example, Spanish, where I fund the purest, i.e., Castilian, most accessible, although still not without a certain harshness. The most interesting are the Scandinavian ones, notably Danish, which, though not lovely, have a certain likable droll quality, what with profuse glottal stops and other idiosyncrasies.

I myself first learned as a toddler German, because that was the language of my beloved nanny, Mia, who came from Austro-Hungarian Bielitz, which is now, Bialistok in Poland, as well as in the Broadway musical, “The Producers.” Those speakers are largely Jewish, and subjects of numerous anecdotes, some jovial, some hostile.

I soon added Hungarian, which we spoke at home, my father being Hungarian but, as we lived in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, a nationalized Yugoslav. My mother came from a Yugoslav minority of Hungarians, and never even learned proper Serbo-Croat, later Serbian, which was the language of that capital where we ended up. It is from that dominant Serbia that, first Slovenia (whence Mrs. Trump), and later Croatia, seceded.

So my next language, which I picked up in the streets, was Serbian, as I preferred to call Serbo-Croat, which was ever so slightly different in Croatian Raciat. So already trilingual, I proceeded to French, the language of most of the intelligentsia. This I learned in private lessons from a charming lady French teacher, the popular Marcelle Raciat. At 13, I was starting English lessons from an Englishman who may well have been a spy, and who regaled me with stories of his female conquests. Then I was sent to public school in Cambridge, England, about which I have already written.

My great regret is that I never properly learned Italian, except from what I picked up in treasured Italian movies, and much, much later from frequent Roman visits to Lina Wertmuller, whose American champion I became. It was her reception on American screens that finally led to Italian critics granting her the well-deserved acclaim they previously withheld for specious reasons.

What I would like to convey is that multilingualism is a wonderful thing, not only because the polyglots get to enjoy and learn from so many more people, but also because certain differences and similarities teach them greater command of the native language. Thus, perhaps, it is that I have no difficulties with “lie” and “lay,” which, largely with the collusion of TV and social media devastates the speech of so many native speakers knowing and using only “lay.”

Or take my avoidance of such pleonasms as “old crone,” or tautologies like “cannot help but,” redundant for either “cannot help” plus a participle, or “cannot but” plus an infinitive. It may also account for proper pronunciation, such as EXquisite rather than exQUIsite, which one hears all over the place and is gaining acceptance from dictionaries. I can see no good reason for it, except that lazy speakers prefer medial accents, easier to handle than initial ones followed by more than one unaccented trailing syllable..

I suppose that in the end the purist or traditionalist cannot win, but I think there is a certain glory in fighting even a losing battle for what one believes to be right. Which brings me to my conclusion: German.

German is basically an in-between language. In its vulgar, Southern form, known as Plattdeutsch, it is downright ugly. But in its well-spoken Northern form, known as Hochdeutsch, it can be very lovely indeed. Consider a fine actor reading out loud a poem by Goethe. Rilke, or Stefan George (or many others), and you can have a musical feast. When I assisted  Archibald MacLeish in a Harvard poetry course, he asked me to recite a Rilke poem to his large class. I did, and was well received. Later MacLeish summoned me to his office and I wondered what did I do wrong this time?  Well, he merely wanted to know the name of the beautiful Radcliffe girl who came just to hear me. It was Christine Bosshard , and though she was impressed, I never even got to first base with her—and neither, I imagine, would have Archie.

I conclude with a favorite passage from Rilke that I may have quoted before, but that can bear repeating. The scene is a riverside afternoon in a Grande Jatte or Sunday in the Park With George setting, with the poet and his mistress present.

Befriedigungen ungezaelter Jahre
Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut.
Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
Mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.

Hear this and feel it, and its music and meaning may well leave you with tears in your eyes.


  1. The fascinating singsong of French…

    1. The compositions in that film are beautiful. Most every shot could be frozen, put in a frame, and hung on the wall.

  2. There's some beautiful spoken language up here where I live in the mountains of Tennessee. You can hear wonderful accents all over the U.S. New Orleans, Virginia, the Northeastern states all have interesting ways of speaking.

  3. Finally watched WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. I avoided this like a plague all these years, and for good reason it turns out.

    The seeds of everything that went crazy with Liberalism can be glimpsed here. It took time for the cancer to spread, but once New England Puritanism lost God, it had to find other causes and needs in an idyllic world of privilege. The nuthouse in the movie is like so many elite colleges in the East Coast.
    Victimhood as fetish for demented brats. These are people who do everything to escape from reality but pretend to save the world.
    The movie’s view of feminism is ambiguous, but soulless eccentricity, esp of the mother, is supposed to be admirable, even redemptive.

    We are living in the Age of Garp and Gump.

    Liberals turned into Garps, freakdom as new normal, and Conservatives turned into Gumps, dumb dogs easily manipulated by the Power.

    Praise be Kek in America is that divided between Garpia and Gumpia. Indeed, we live in Garpngumpia.

    Women raising sons alone in a fatherless world as an ideal. World is getting sick.

    1. Why is this reply here? Mr. Simon was speaking of languages.

  4. Maybe German isn't pretty but it's manly. In contrast, French is pussy. As for Italians, it's like crystal glass when spoken right. But it's just vulgar trashiolini when spoken like most greaseballs do.

    1. German uses way too many consonants. Sounds like chalk on a blackboard, or some dude coughing up a phlegm ball. Need to assume a language with more vowels like French or Italian. All "Greaseballs" (as you so eloquently phase it) are natural born poets. Every word rhymes with any other word in Italian. Who's more oily, the Greeks or the Italians? The olives in Italy are better because of the volcanoes. Spellcheck is telling me to add a "e" to volcanos. WTF?

  5. Greek is the finest language and gave us many wonderful words and names.

  6. Like the sound of that

    The melodiousness of language,
    Or its malodorousness,
    Mr. Simon has got down to a science;

    But we know in the end,
    Yankee English we'll defend,
    For its money talking reliance.

  7. Shaw said the noblest English he ever heard was spoken by the actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson. For another example of musical English listen to the lecture 'On the Speaking of Verse' by John Drinkwater, an old 78rpm recording. (If you google this you will find it on youtube where someone has kindly posted it.)

    1. Poets, Richard Burton said, have no idea how to read their own poetry. It takes an actor with a trained voice. Here a countryman of his makes a better job of it than T. S. Eliot ever did.

    2. Thank you, Jeffrey. I'm on the case.

    3. Joe, with all due respect, I'd rather hear T.S. reading his own poetry than any "trained voice" actor. I compare it to musicians, for example. I'd rather hear Bob Dylan's version of his songs than a someone else's cover (with the possible exception of Jimi's version of 'All Along the Watch Tower' which is in a world of its own). Yes, they might have a superior voice, but who could top Bobby's recording of 'Masters of War'? 'Girl From the North Country'? 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall'? Having said all of this, All time Top 5 covers of Bob Dylan songs:

      5) Eddie Vedder-Masters of War
      4) Joan Baez-Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
      3) The Byrds- Mr. Tambourine Man
      2) Jimi Hendrix-All Along the Watch Tower
      1) The Band-I Shall Be Released

    4. Peter Paul and Mary - Blowing in the Wind

    5. Ahh, a classic. Somewhat "G rated", but nevertheless, vintage. Wonderful harmonies and some nifty fingerpicking by Yarrow.

    6. UK, oddly the best argument against Richard Burton - who, let’s face it, was biased - might just be his fellow countryman Dylan Thomas who, at least when he was sober, was famous for readings of his own work.

      I agree with your Dylan picks on the ones I’m familiar with Some make a case for the very different Neil Young/Booker T ALL AROUND THE WATCHTOWER at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration concert in 1992 at Madison Square Garden. Hendrix’s version is incandescent, unforgettable, even a little scary. Young’s version, which is on YouTube, is spastic punky all the way, a grinning Neil living off vibes from the audience, stressing both the “life is but a joke” and “wind began to howl” parts of the lyric.

    7. Regarding Dylan Thomas, he actually read better when he was drunk.

    8. One of my favorite Thomas poems:

      Poem (Your breath was shed)

      Your breath was shed
      Invisible to make
      About the soiled undead
      Night for my sake,

      A raining trail
      Intangible to them
      With biter’s tooth and tail
      And cobweb drum,

      A dark as deep
      My love as a round wave
      To hide the wolves of sleep
      And mask the grave.

  8. Max Beerbohm sounded pretty good:

  9. An interesting thing I learned about language recently is that the ability to learn it appears to be hardwired in the human brain. Apparently it has nothing to with nationality, culture or race. That is, if a German baby is born in China and learns Chinese as his first language, he will be perfectly fluent in Chinese and indistinguishable from a native of China. Likewise for a Kenyan born in France, an Indian born in England, or a Spaniard born in Thailand.
    On the other hand, after fluency is obtained in one language, the accent is never completely lost in the second or third language subsequently learned.

  10. My late father's swearing tirades in Portuguese were music to my ears.

  11. Methinks Tennessee Williams reads beautifully Hart Crane's poem "Indiana" in this TV clip:

  12. Robertson Davies spoke purty well for a Canuck:

  13. Do you still have your annual top 10 movie lists that were published in the 70s? I always thought you had great taste and would love to revisit some of the films that made your lists!